Stadia Et Cetera

From today's WaPo, the incomparable Hank Stuever:

No amount of Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey songs could mask the pain. One by one, until the wee hours Monday morning, the reigning drag queens of Half Street SE descended the stairs at Ziegfeld's cabaret to strut their last, blowing kisses to admirers and making a few more sweepingly glamorous gestures -- all of it a farewell to the shabby but perfect place they called home for three decades.

Ziegfeld's, and four other establishments on the same forsaken industrial block at Half and O streets, closed yesterday in a cruelly predictable high school metaphor: The jocks win.

...the packed-sardine crowd -- gay men, mostly, and not all of them the kind you see on HGTV. Far from the happy, let's-walk-the-Labrador-to-Whole-Foods realm of Logan and Dupont circles, the O Street scene was the real deal: grubby, hidden even within sight of the Capitol, and just plain ugly-gorgeous.

Xavier, a wicked-eyed diva who has performed at the club for a fraction of the time Ella has, trash-talked the crowd into a mild frenzy: "Now they're going to build a baseball stadium here. And what are we going to do when it's done? Burn it down! That's right! We are gonna burn! It! Down! . . . [Bleep] baseball! Who gives a [bleep] about baseball?"

So now you've done it, Washington. You've spurned the queens, and they are both heartbroken and livid. Besides Ziegfeld's and its full-frontal go-go annex, Secrets, the block was also the home to the Glorious Health Club, Follies (a "movie theater," in the language of old newspaper clippings, back when police were raiding the place, charging the, um, moviegoers with acts of sodomy), and another club called Heat. Nation, a nightclub a few blocks north, has announced that it's closing July 16 to make way for an office building.
Ziegfeld's and Secrets are owned by Allen Carroll and Chris Jansen, who have promised their clientele (in ads in the gay press, and in person at the farewell bash) that they are going to reopen -- someday, somewhere.

But no neighborhood wants them, and saving the clubs has so far not been placed very high on the gay agenda. Early in the baseball debate, after a proposal to relocate some clubs in Ward 5 was met with complaints, the city attempted to find Ziegfeld's another option:

"In P.G. County," scoffed Carroll, who told a city representative, "I am born and raised in D.C., and I have been down here 31 years. And they want us to move to Prince George's County?"
Driven by an unfriendly police chief in the '70s down to the blight of the Navy Yard, the seamier clubs thrived here. It became the opposite of more mainstream, ho-hum homo club life. Going down to Navy Yard made you feel a little dirty (or a lot dirty), in an adventurous or perhaps even anonymous way. It never felt completely safe. Parking was plentiful but dicey. Razor wire and cinder blocks -- it was a look, and it is perhaps irreplaceable. It may be hard to understand Half and O as a lost gay authenticity; harder still to assign it any civic value.

So come back inside Ziegfeld's. Understand it, at the very least, as home.

This, of course, was entirely predictable. I went to Nation, once, a few years back for a Social Distortion concert (a great concert - a strange venue); over the years, I am sure I will go to see the Nationals dozens of times in their new park. And that's me - most of the future attendees of Nats games are people who would never have allowed themselves within 20 blocks of Navy Yard SE.

Newly constructed baseball stadia - often on the public dime, welfare for billionaires, but that's another discussion - have gone hand in hand with the urban renewal projects in many cities over the past decade or so: Baltimore was first, followed by Cleveland, Detroit, maybe a dozen others. You can argue just how economically beneficial each have been for their respective cities, but the simple fact of the matter is that they - and the surrounding sports bars, family restaurants, etc. - are in pretty much every case a marked improvement over the dingy, often dangerous neighborhoods they replace. Boring and white-bread, yes; but almost always improvements, nonetheless.

There's another dynamic here, too, that Stuever points out - "Far from the happy, let's-walk-the-Labrador-to-Whole-Foods realm of Logan and Dupont circles, the O Street scene was the real deal: grubby, hidden even within sight of the Capitol, and just plain ugly-gorgeous...But no neighborhood wants them..." This is the toll of progress - once upon a time, Logan and Dupont circles were also pretty grungy, sketchy neighborhoods. Over the past 30 years, the neighborhoods and their residents have become prosperous and "respectable," to the extent that the High Heel Race is now a requisite stop for mainstream D.C. politicians. Not being gay, I won't really extrapolate too much further on these contrasting pictures of D.C. gay identity, but the unstated feeling here seems an element of embarassment at the now-departed O St. scene - which is too bad. The marvelous thing about cities is how weird and crazy and mysterious they are - the hidden gems, the hole-in-the-wall take-away place and the wonderful club in the sketchy-ass neighborhood. The fact that all sorts of different people and competing interests and agendas have to figure out a way to coexist in an extremely limited space.

A friend from high school was in town recently, and recounted going downtown with his family only to discover that the former site of the 9:30 Club - and the alley where where he'd drunk 40s before shows - was now the Spy Museum and attendant overpriced cafe. I knew this already and wasn't shocked by it and, all in all, it's also a good thing that one can walk safely downtown after dark. Gentrification and redevelopment has made D.C. a better, safer place to live, with more and better jobs. There is no doubt about that.

But. But. I'm not sure but what - but it's something.

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